Monday, May 6, 2013

Florence: Santa Maria del Fiore

Florentines built their first cathedral in the early 400s and dedicated it to St. Reparata. By the late 1200s that church building needed significant repairs and could no longer accommodate all the people wishing to worship there on Sundays. Municipal leaders decided to have a new one built. Construction started in 1296.

Arnolfo di Cambio designed the new cathedral and supervised its construction until his death in 1302. At that point enthusiasm for the project ended. In 1330, however, someone discovered on site the bones of St. Zenobius himself—the patron saint of Florence—and work began with renewed vigor. The following year leaders of the rich wool guild decided to finance future building costs.

In 1334 these same leaders appointed the deeply respected Giotto to supervise construction. He focused on designing the free-standing bell tower. Workers finished only its lowest level before his death in 1337.

In 1348 plague killed at least half of the city’s 90,000 inhabitants and stopped all work.

Once that disaster had passed, life returned to the city and work resumed on the cathedral. Workers finished the bell tower in 1359. With the completion of the exterior walls of the new cathedral in 1375, the old church building of St. Reparata—still standing within them—was torn down. By 1380 the nave, or rectangular front half, was roofed. By 1418, only construction of the central dome remained unfinished.

Only! The dome would have to span a hole 144 feet (44 m) wide. No one had built a dome that wide since the completion of the Pantheon in Rome 1,300 years before. Then in 1367 municipal leaders chose to reject the dominant Gothic style, with its external buttresses for support, in favor of a free-standing dome. Plus no scaffolding could be used to support the dome during its construction. There simply weren’t enough trees in all of Tuscany. No one knew how to construct such a dome. Only boldness or folly led municipal leaders to finance construction of a building with no idea how anyone would roof it.

Leaders of the wool guild promised a small fortune to the man who could. They chose Filippo Brunelleschi to get it done and Lorenzo Ghiberti, their favorite artist, to co-lead the project. Filippo didn’t want to share leadership of the project with Lorenzo so he left for Rome. Work started in 1420 but didn’t go far. Once Lorenzo, great artist that he was, admitted that only Filippo had the necessary knowledge, leaders lured Filippo back from Rome by promising him sole leadership and their full support.

To respond creatively to his unprecedented challenge, Filippo developed new methods of construction as well as new machines needed to move heavy loads of stone and brick from the ground to the men working high above it. Over 4,000,000 bricks later, workers completed his dome in 1434. The result was an engineering marvel, an aesthetic masterpiece, and the beginning of a bold new Renaissance style of architecture.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.